Winning The Battle of Work vs. Life

November 2, 2007

It seems that Gen Y is adding a new characteristic to our list of generational generalities – many of us are joining the ranks of workaholics. Maybe it stems from our secret conservatism that we are mirroring tendency that characterized the careers and lives of our Boomer parents. It could be our intense desire to get ahead and our willingness to do whatever that takes.

Whatever the reason, it’s time to take a serious look at this issue and understand the trajectory of a life or career that begins with workaholism. Before it’s too late.

Now, I’m not saying that having a good work ethic and using it isn’t good. Of course it is. People who work hard deserve to get ahead. And usually, they do. That always will be true, and it’s a part of the system that’s built well. But there’s a big difference between working hard and working smart. In fact, psychologists tell us that hard workers are inherently different than workaholics.

And those teetering on the brink of being a workaholic need to think: is a life solely dedicated to a job or a career – well, is that any life at all?

Gen Y, pay attention – your lives are literally on the line.

Here’s what it boils down to: How we handle the proving ourselves time in entering the workforce is going to set precedents for the way the rest of our lives and opportunities play out. For example, as Penelope Trunk recently wrote, young women who want to have a family and career face the serious dilemma of timing and capitalizing on their fertility versus committing fully to a career. On the other hand of the same argument, young men like Ryan Paugh are talking about the dilemma of whether or not to commit to a long-term romantic relationship or to take risks in their career early on.

The main problem I see with these arguments isn’t in the arguments themselves. They both make excellent points, and the many counterpoints that are out there hold a lot of validity too. The problem is in the fact that each has outlined an either/or proposition. Essentially, you can have a family/relationship or you can have a great career. You see, the very way we are talking about this issue illustrates that no matter how much we tout the value of work/life balance, we seem to believe that in a way, it’s sort of a myth. And to be honest, a lot of times it feels like a myth.

All Gen Y workers entering the workforce face the issue of just how much to give to employers– hey, we’re a skilled, capable bunch with a lot to offer. That doesn’t necessarily differentiate us from generations past. It’s part of being at this stage in life. That’s also why right now is really important in who we will become as a generation. Right now, regardless of what we want, we have to deal with the reality of a system that often rewards time over talent and tenure over expertise. We’re aching for more important assignments, paying our dues while we wait on the rest of the corporate world to recognize and harness our raw talent.

And the truth is, getting what we want will take some time. Time that’s not best spent focusing every single spare moment on career while the other parts of our lives wait to get started.

Sure, there are opportunities out there for us now, and now’s a great time to invest in our careers. But it’s not a great time to procrastinate on life. It’s a great time to be living it. Which means that if Gen Y wants to be serious about work/life balance, we have to have the courage to prioritize for life when push comes to shove. It’s not an easy decision to make, but for the sake of the future of work (not to mention the future of you), I’d say it’s one worth making.


24 Responses to “Winning The Battle of Work vs. Life”

  1. Working Girl Says:

    Well said.

    Plus, you know what? We will always have to balance, in one way or another, the conflicting demands of life. The demands may change as we get older, but we’re always going to be doing the old push-pull.

    So, you’re right, it’s good to start thinking about “how” right at the beginning of our careers.

  2. Penelope Says:


    This post is a treasure trove of links. Thanks for that.

    One thing you might think about is that fulfilling work is not the same as work that allows you to be a thought-leader in your field. In order to get to the top of a field and be a leader and get your choice of job and your choice of which superstars you want to work with, you still have to wrok long hours. That’s how the work world is set up right now.

    The good news is that it’s easier than ever to move in and out of the workforce, and I think that’s what people are doing because working at the top of one’s field is so exhausting.

    It’s intersting to me that you link to Tim Ferriss as an example of an alternative to long hours. I don’t know anyone who works harder than Tim Ferriss. He defines work as what you don’t like and then spends nearly every waking minute doing work he loves and calling it not work. But Tim, like just about everyone else I can think of who is a thought-leader, got where he is today from incredibly long hours and hard work.

    The idea that people should be rewarded for talent rather than time seems fair. And I think the talented can get away with working shorter hours in the middle of the workforce. But at the higher levels, it’s so intense, and competition is so fierce, still, that I don’t see people surviving at the top without working long hours in addition to having great talent. The only thing that will change this is when the people who are at the very top would rather spend time with their friends and family than compete to stay at the top. And I don’t see that changing any time soon. I think the majority of change comes in the middle of the workforce, not at the top.

  3. Andre Says:

    This is absolutely PERFECT for me right now…

  4. Tiffany Says:

    Thanks for your comment. I think it’s definitely true that there’s a big difference in achieving the different goals of being a thought leader versus doing fulfilling work. They do take different amounts of time and dedication.

    But the amount of hours you work isn’t only what I’m getting at here. It’s the value of your life when you’re not working – whether you call it work or not. I think particularly for those with the dream to be a thought-leader, this is a tough issue. I think that’s a great dream, but I also believe that most people who become thought leaders and leave their personal life goals behind to get there end up regretting it in the long run.

    I also know there are some who have been able to do both. That’s why I think that it’s worth fighting the personal battle for balance in the end.

    Because really, the truth is, it’s a heck of a lot easier to be all-life focused or all-work focused. It’s tough to fight for both. It’s mentally and physically challenging. But it’s worth it. And for those of us pre-disposed to opt for a work-heavy load, we need to be challenged to take our lives just as seriously as our careers.

  5. Dr. T Says:


    Thank you for the informative blog. As you know, this is a greatly discussed subject in academia. Most of the scholars who do research in the area of work-life balance are organizational communication scholars within a feminist postsructuralist tradition. Dr. Patrice Buzzanell, a full professor of communication at Purdue University is probably the most known scholar in this area in the world. Much research has been done in this area over the past decade. One of the most interesting publications is the edited book (Eds.: Buzzanell, P. M.; Sterk, H.; Turner, L. H.), a volume of multiple voices of researchers titled “ Gender in applied communication contexts” published in 2004 by Sage.

    I think readers who are interested in this subject can find multiple research articles extremely beneficial for conceptualizing and analyzing these issues and identifying practical implications and tips how to handle the variety of situations at workplace. Here is a list of sample articles on the subject with multiple practical and theoretical implications (latest publications are listed at the end).

    1. Title Refraining the glass ceiling as a socially constructed process: implications for understanding and change Author Buzzanell, P. M. Source Communication Monographs, vol. 62, no. 4, pp. 327-354, Dec. 1995 ISSN 0363-7751

    2. Title Traditional and feminist organizational communication ethical analyses of messages and issues surrounding an actual job loss case Author Mattson, M.; Buzzanell, P. M Source Journal of Applied Communication Research, vol. 27, no. 1, pp. 49-72, Feb. 1999 ISSN 0090-9882

    3. Title Gendered practices in the contemporary workplace: a critique of what often constitutes front page news in The Wall Street Journal Author Buzzanell, P. M. Source Management Communication Quarterly, vol. 14, no. 3, pp. 517-537, Feb. 2001 ISSN 0893-3189

    4. Title Telecommuting as viewed through cultural lenses: an empirical investigation and the discourses of utopia, identity, and mystery Author Hylmo, A.; Buzzanell, P. M. Source Communication Monographs, vol. 69, no. 4, pp. 329-356, Dec. 2002 ISSN 0363-7751

    5. Title A feminist standpoint analysis of maternity and maternity leave for women with disabilities Author Buzzanell, P. M. Source Women and Language, vol. 26, no. 2, pp. 53-65, 2003 ISSN 8755-4550

    6. Title Emotion revealed by job loss discourse: backgrounding-foregrounding of feelings, construction of normalcy, and (re)instituting of traditional masculinities Author Buzzanell, P. M.; Turner, L. H. Source Journal of Applied Communication Research, vol. 31, no. 1, pp. 27-57, Feb. 2003 ISSN 0090-9882

    7. Title Negotiating maternity leave expectations: Perceived tensions between ethics of justice and care Author Liu, M.; Buzzanell, P. M. Source Journal of Business Communication, vol. 41, no. 4, pp. 323-349, 2004 ISSN 0021-9436

    8. Title The good working mother: Managerial womens sensemaking and feelings about work-family issues Author Buzzanell, P. M.; Meisenbach, R.; Remke, R. Source Communication Studies, vol. 56, no. 3, pp. 261-285, 2005 ISSN 0008-9575

    9. Title Struggling with maternity leave policies and practices: A poststructuralist feminist analysis of gendered organizing Author Buzzanell, P. M.; Liu, M. Source Journal of Applied Communication Research, vol. 33, no. 1, pp. 1-25, 2005 ISSN 0090-9882

    10. Title Family and work socializing communication: Messages, gender, and ideological implications Author Medved, C. E.; Brogan, S. M.; McClanahan, A. M. Source Journal of Family Communication, vol. 6, no. 3, pp. 161-180, 2006 ISSN 1526-7431

    Katerina Tsetsura, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Strategic Communication, University of Oklahoma

  6. Tiffany Says:

    Dr. Tsetsura,
    I have run across Buzzanell in my graduate research from time to time. Thank you for all the great resources!

  7. B.moore Says:

    Excellent summary. And putting off something important to you today may not be there tomorrow. If, you want that long term romance go after it, that person may not be around next year so love them to death today.
    I’ve learned that you can work your buns off for a promotion and then out the blue some bigger/better company will buy your company out and then your starting from scratch.

  8. […] much cool stuff as we do, I don’t think we will ever be fully satisfied until we learn to invest time outside of ourselves and our own interests. It could be mentoring someone at work or an at-risk youth. Maybe it’s […]

  9. Mark Says:

    Bravo…I can’t agree with you more. It’s very hard to find reports that illustrate the work ethic of Gen ‘Y’, but I think you have revealed our generation’s true colors. An example, last week, I had a date with an OR nurse who has a tough job to begin with, but has a second job teaching on the side. Nurses in this area do very well on average, so you’d think that this second job isn’t to make ends meet…in fact, she took the second job because she wants to teach. I can come up with other examples of ‘Yers’ like this…people who have a side business that encompasses their lives outside work…people who work full time AND go to grad school full time…etc.

    I applaud this generation for having a strong work ethic, but I just think there’s something lost when everyone is so focused on their careers early on. Since day one, we have been so focused about getting ahead, and have not thought for a moment about stopping to smell the roses. When the time comes when we do need to focus on other things, like relationships and family, will we be able to do that with ease, or will we just become Boom v. 2.0, and ignore what is really more important in the grand scheme of things? Seeing that the oldest of our generation is in the extreme twilight of our twenties, I just don’t see that.

  10. Interesting, your point about second jobs. It reminds me of Marci Alboher’s concept of slash careers. You should check her out at

    It is tough enough to balance life and work without adding work back in there again, but so many of us are doing it – myself included, in the form of blogging and grad school. But without the the “other” in life. . . we are in danger of becoming Gen Boomer 2.0, as you put it.

  11. Mark Says:

    Thanks…I think the “slash career” concept will become more common in the coming years, especially as the “traditional” office job slowly continues to become less and less common. The question that I have is whether the person will keep the “slash career”, or will he or she eventually focus on one or the other.

    A lot of it, I suspect, may be experimentation… especially among those in their 20s. Gen ‘Yers’ might feel that they want to keep their steady paycheck with their current jobs, but are curious about possibly another path, and will spend their evenings or weekends working at another opportunity. Some might continue working both jobs, while others might decide that the part time job is more suited to their personality, and eventually morph into that role. I do think, however, that given the stronger “workaholic” personalities of Gen ‘Y’, that in many cases, a second job will consistently be in play.

  12. What’s interesting is that the slash career phenomenon is sort of crossing generational lines. In fact, Marci was recently featured on the Today show on a piece about – Boomers in slash careers! Maybe there’s just a feeling of more flexibility and stability in the workforce right now, so people are more willing to take chances to feel more fulfilled in their work. It’s that hierarchy of needs thing – when you’re pretty sure you will have a steady job one way or the other, you focus more on whether or not you actually like your work than you do on having a job to fulfill more basic needs.

  13. […] observers of Gen Y know that this generation craves work-life balance. For us, sacrificing a personal life to climb the ranks at work isn’t a reasonable trade-off. […]

  14. […] it, whether or not they think it’s really real. We talk about it a lot – different ideas on how to achieve it in our work, how to make it better in our lives. We talk about balance between work and home. Balance in our […]

  15. […] observers of Gen Y know that this generation craves work-life balance. For us, sacrificing a personal life to climb the ranks at work isn’t a reasonable trade-off. […]

  16. […] professional, this statement extends way beyond career. In fact, it’s the basic issue of work meets life that so many of us struggle with on a day to day […]

  17. […] happiness your top priority. Money won’t make you happy, in fact, research shows that once you reach the $40,000 a year mark, […]

  18. […] happiness your top priority. Money won’t make you happy, in fact, research shows that once you reach the $40,000 a year mark, […]

  19. […] observers of Gen Y know that this generation craves work-life balance. For us, sacrificing a personal life to climb the ranks at work isn’t a reasonable trade-off. We […]

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